Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Political poetry in Ireland: A consideration

With the Irish general election looming on Friday, 25th February, there is a bit of an elephant in the room for many of us Irish poets who feel somewhat uneasy that our writing has not been as engagé as it might have been. While there are solid traditions of protest poetry in other parts of the world such as Russia, Persia and Latin America, Irish poetry is often criticised for not being sufficiently engaged with the injustices and inequities of our political system and society. I would like to open a discussion here about poems that are politically engaged, how they work as literary texts and function as ethical documents. My own personal opinion is that poetry is, first and foremost, an art form and poems that aim to critique politics should also display real literary skill and operate on an artistic level that is beyond a mere didactic platform. I also believe that poetry is a vehicle for truth and, as such, it should aim to highlight injustice in society and government where possible. However, while many of us are capable of writing satirical, political rhymes that critique the shibboleths of Irish politicians, the corruption of greedy bankers and planners in the construction industry, etc. it is a significant challenge to do this well. How and when would these texts constitute accomplished poetry and art? Would they help to alter popular opinion among Irish voters and influence policy makers? I am genuinely interested in debating this question. From my own experience I've found that it is somewhat rare to encounter Irish poetry that attempts to be politically engaged which also impresses as quality literature.  However, this is merely my own individual opinion and I am open to debate on this topic. Over the years I have read a number of highly skilled political poems by international writers such as Gioconda Belli, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, etc. and also protest poetry in various collections by Amnesty and other such organisations which have touched me deeply and remained with me. These poems were not propaganda; their power issued from the transformative ability of the imagination to evoke a reality with which the reader could empathise. Closer to home, too, there is evidence of literary dexterity among some of the poems published by the Irish Left Review However, there are also some weaker poems that don't quite work as literature. This brings us neatly back to the age-old vexatious question about 'what constitutes literature' and so I would like throw open the discussion at this point and welcome all your comments. Why have we such a weak culture of political poetry in Ireland? Have you read many (or indeed any) truly memorable poems that spurred you to, for example, vote differently, question prevailing discourses, moved you to effect change or act on something? If so, I'd love to hear about them here and please do share! If not, perhaps it is timely to discuss why this is the case in such a literary country, and how effective poetry is as an agent of change in Ireland. Is our tradition of political poetry so ineffective because we are apathetic to its message? Or is it the case that the currency of such poetry is much stronger in countries where basic human rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to vote for whomever one pleases are under threat? Many of the political poets I admire have been arrested for their writings and perhaps there is a greater respect for the quiet, personal medium of poetry and its ability to articulate injustice in other countries where freedom of expression is curtailed by the state-controlled media. Is Irish political poetry doomed to fall on indifferent ears in our so-called 'democracy' where - typically - we lazily keep on voting in the same tradition as our families have always done and we don't react until the crisis is on our doorstep? Isn't there much more at stake now for the economic future of this island than there has been in many many years and shouldn't we poets be taking a stand? Orwell's words resonate: "The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude." All thoughts are welcome!

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